Lisa McSorley and family catch a ferry over the Irish Sea for a road trip along the Northern Irish coast
Lord and Lady of the castle...
If the idea of a road trip in the UK calls to mind the M6 at rush hour and fills you with dread, then Northern Ireland is the polar opposite. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s a delightful experience. The journey there is simple enough with 13 sailings weekly from Liverpool to Belfast, it’s accessible from pretty much anywhere in Blighty and you can just throw everything you need in the car and head off. Or you can fly direct from most UK airports to either George Best Belfast City or Belfast International airports and pick up a hire car on arrival. It’s the ideal holiday destination for adventurous families who love fresh air, and also for pregnant couples who want to spend some quality relaxed time together before 'junior' comes along.
I can’t go on without mentioning the infamous Northern Irish weather, which can be, shall we say, changeable - you’re likely to get all seasons in one day. However, I like to think that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing. Lest we forget, it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing, you need lots of rain for all that greenery! Having said that, when the sun shines it can be the most beautiful place on the planet and driving through the green hills of Northern Ireland is simply breathtaking. You hardly see other cars on the road, with the exception of towns, it’s a million miles away from motorway driving – even on the actual motorways which are more like England’s A roads. You’ll find yourself sometimes on roads with bits of grass growing in the middle as you criss-cross your way to your next destination.
Ballygally Castle Hotel
Our first stop was 4* Ballygally Castle Hotel – part of the Hastings group which boasts six luxury hotels in Northern Ireland – just north of Belfast in Antrim. It nestles in the hills on the Causeway Coast where many scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed. The Giant’s Causeway, a National Trust treasure, is just over an hour’s drive away.
Ballygally Castle itself claims to be the oldest occupied building in Ireland. It was built around 1625 by James Shaw of Greenrock and is one of Ireland’s best-preserved Scottish baronial style plantation houses. The castle is steeped in history and is supposedly home to several ghosts, the most prolific of which is Lady Isobel Shaw, who’s tragic end came when she fell to her death from the window of the turret in which she was kept prisoner by her husband.
Thankfully our room was situated far from the Ghost Room. We stayed in the Antrim Suite, which was so lovely we hardly wanted to leave for dinner. With amazing views across the Irish Sea to Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre a mere 12 miles away, it’s the closest point between the two countries and a stunning view on a clear day.
Dinner was a fairly relaxed affair in the elegant Garden restaurant. The menu was simple but well executed and included the slightly gimmicky-yet-delicious Causeway chunky chips. Children are more than welcome here, but in my opinion, it makes a fantastic babymoon destination.
On Lusty Beg Island
Our next destination, was two hours and twenty minutes drive through fabulous landscapes, past Lough Neagh and though mountain passes and bog lands that look like the surface of the moon. Lusty Beg Island is accessible only by a tiny car ferry, it’s a unique destination which had us charmed immediately. Perfect for families and couples alike, you can do as much or as little as you desire. Set amongst the beautiful lakeside woodlands, there are several accommodation options, we stayed in a 4* Inish Lodge, – a luxury self-catering wooden cabin, with it’s own gorgeous view across the lake. It was a real home from home with a log burner and a verandah overlooking the lake.
Inish Lodge, – a luxury self-catering wooden cabin
The Island has its own spa with an indoor pool, outdoor hot-tub and treatment rooms to help you relax. If you’re more outdoorsy then don’t panic, the nature trail is a good start, it takes about an hour to walk around the island. And the more adventurous can choose from canoeing, off-road driving, clay pigeon shooting or, like us, take a trip out on Lough Erne in Lusty’s rib boat, from the middle of the lough, you can see Fermanagh, Tyrone, Donegal and Leitrim, and, if you’re lucky, the driver will do some doughnuts which makes for an exhilarating ride!
The restaurant and bar are incredibly welcoming, it’s easy to forget the time when you settle in next to one of the open fires. The menu offers something for everyone with a small but well-chosen selection and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
Ireland's finest (ferry)
Strictly speaking Ballybofey, our next port of call, is in the Republic of Ireland, but you can’t come to this part of the world and not cross over the border to the beautiful and rugged Donegal. Situated just off the Wild Atlantic Way – the tourism trail that hugs the west coast of Ireland, you could easily continue your Irish adventure and sample some Gaelic culture beyond, but for us, under an hour away from Lusty Beg, this was to be the last stop.
Ballybofey is less touristy than it’s neighbour Donegal Town but equally as friendly and charming, you’ll easily find ‘the craic’ here. With its colourful buildings, it’s a contrast to the nearby Northern Irish towns which tend to allow the rural scenery to take the limelight, there’s a very real feeling that you’ve moved into another country even if the borders are not so obvious anymore.
The Villa Rose 4* boutique-style hotel has 55 stylish bedrooms and two suites, including family rooms incorporating a double and two single beds, and is situated in the heart of the bustling town.
The V Spa (above) is small but perfectly formed and includes the Thermal Suite complete with sauna, jacuzzi, plus a relaxation room, hair and beauty boutique and myriad treatments to pamper oneself. I treated myself to back-to-back treatments, which meant two hours of pure pampering heaven. Before the treatments began there was a form requesting information such as how much pressure we’d like for the massage, and level of conversation, which I felt was refreshingly discreet. My own experience commenced with the maternity back massage, which had me on my side and used pregnancy-safe oils, this was followed by a hydraglow facial which took years off me! After all that relaxing we headed upstairs to the Wee Bar for a light bite, the seafood chowder was divine.
Ballygally Castle hotel: One night in a Coastal Deluxe Double room, includes dinner, bed and breakfast from £170 per room
Lusty Beg Island: 4* Inish lodge (sleeps 6) 3 nights weekend or 4 nights weekdays, £595
Villa Rose: One night stay in a family room, sleeps two adults and two children, from €119 midweek and €169 weekend
• Bundle of Joy maternity spa package, includes hydracure facial, deep scalp massage and full body maternity massage, €115 for 2 hours and includes access to the Thermal Suite.
Get there: Stena Line ferries, Liverpool to Belfast from £280 return